Monday, June 22, 2009

Have Gun, Can't Travel

A few years ago a carpenter was doing some work in our house—building a wall of bookshelves so we could turn an unused bedroom into a library. It took him a few days and in that time we chatted a lot. On his last day it was obvious he wanted to say something to us, but it took him a little time to work his way around to the topic.
When he finally got there, he asked me and Erica if we would be willing to give some of our time and opinions to an environmental coalition he was part of. As he spoke, we were both a little perplexed about why he thought we might be good people to have in his coalition. Was it our good looks? Our obvious intelligence? Our wide-ranging taste in books? Our sparkling conversationalism?
Though all of these qualities no doubt apply, in the end none of them were the actual reason he asked us. As he ended his pitch he said something like, “what we’re trying to do is bridge the gap between lefty liberal environmentalist groups and more conservative groups with some overlapping interests. I saw the NRA sticker on your car and I thought you guys might be just what we are looking for.”
Ahhhhh. So that was it. The National Rifle Association member sticker on the rear window of our ’99 Volvo. We had to tell the carpenter that the car did indeed belong to us, but that we were not, in fact, members of the NRA. Nor had we ever been. My brother Rich—who sold us the car—belonged. He probably still does. But we do not. Nor will we ever, most probably. His face fell as he mentally took a black, fine-point, permanent Sharpie and drew a thin dark line through our names.
Here it is at least three years later and we still have the NRA sticker on the car, probably in some misguided belief that it might deter thieves.
I thought of that sticker yesterday. Was even tempted to finally remove it when I read about all the people on the government’s terrorist watch list who have made purchases of guns and explosives in the past several years. In the rush to pass the USA PATRIOT Act after 9/11 many legislators were willing to sacrifice some of our expansive civil liberties in the name of security. But even then, in the immediate aftermath of the worst attack on this country since Pearl Harbor, the NRA stood firm in their defense of everyone’s right to possess a gun. Somehow, a provision calling for inclusion on the terrorist watch list to lead to an automatic exclusion from the right to buy guns or explosives never became part of the law.
A 2007 effort by Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey to address this glaring omission was squashed by the NRA and their lackeys in the Congress. And yesterday I read of a soon-to-be-released report from the Government Accountability Office that said:

“People on the government’s terrorist watch list tried to buy guns nearly 1,000 times in the last five years, and federal authorities cleared the purchases 9 times out of 10 because they had no legal way to stop them. In one case, a person on the list was able to buy more than 50 pounds of explosives.”

Senator Lautenberg will try once again to close this potentially disastrous loophole, but I don’t have high hopes for his success. Think what you will about the NRA, but they are incredibly effective at killing legislation they don’t like.
I have a huge list of problems with the government’s terrorist watch list as it exists today. It seems to apply a sledgehammer where a jeweler’s hammer would work better. But if inclusion on the list is enough to prevent a fully-screened passenger from getting on a plane or a person wishing to travel from getting a visa, how is it NOT enough to stop someone from buying 50 pounds of explosives or a gun?
I would love to see the leadership of the NRA step out of their one-track minds and step forward to take the lead in efforts to reshape the terrorist watch list into something more useful and evidence-based. Sadly, I don’t think this will happen. Instead, they will go around yelling, “Slippery slope, slippery SLOPE. They want our guns!!” and somehow manage to keep the world safe for identified potential terrorists to buy guns and explosives.
That seals it. You know what? That sticker comes off my car today.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Jack, Part Seven--I Love You More

Well, to make a billions-of-years-long story somewhat shorter, the dissatisfaction spread quickly and was soon an epidemic. Left and right, the animals were forgetting their gifts and instead focusing on the things they couldn’t do or that others could do better than they could.
Manitou, even though He was Manitou, had His feelings hurt. He was feeling the sting of the ungrateful animals’ complaints. He decided to take drastic measures to remind the animals of all they had been given.
Now, if you’ll remember, this story takes place at a time when the world was the perfect place—there were no blizzards, no tornados, no hurricanes, no droughts, no extreme weather of any sort. In fact, every day was 76 and sunny and every night was clear and in the fifties. Manitou decided that what might be called for was a little adversity—thinking that might make the animals pull together and forget their jealousies and their differences.
So he changed the winds just a little and tilted the axis of the planet so that as it circled the sun there were some pretty noticeable changes in the weather month by month. In this part of the world the days began to get shorter, the leaves of the trees began to receive less sunlight and soon changed color and fell off . The animals began to spend more and more of their energy just keeping warm. And they began to get worried.
But instead of bringing them closer together, their difficulties only made them fight and argue more. Things were getting bad.
Heavy cold fluffy particles began to fall from the sky. It was beautiful, but none of the animals were able to appreciate just how beautiful because they were all too busy shivering and trying to stay warm and alive.
They had to do something fast or they were in real danger of losing this world. So the crow, who was the wisest of all the animals, and the only one who had not yet given in to dissatisfaction, began flying from animal to animal, calling them together for a meeting. And because the crow was the one animal that had not joined in the arguing and petty jealousies, the other animals listened to his call and gathered where and when he said they should.
Of course it helped that Crow had the most musical, melodious voice of any of the animals in Manitou’s creation. When the other animals heard him call, they could hardly refuse. And even in the dimmed light of the intensifying storm the rainbow-colored feathers of the crow stood out vibrantly like a beacon, and the animals followed him to a large clearing in a field not far from here—near the rocks we call Sleeping Giant.
In the course of their meeting it became clear that all of the animals had some grievance or another with just about every other animal. The only one they all still seemed to trust was the crow. So they chose him to fly up to Manitou in Sky Country to apologize and see if He would change things back to the way they were. You see, by this time the animals had realized that it was probably their own arguing and complaining about what they didn’t have that had led Manitou to change the world so drastically. And they knew the first thing they had to do was apologize for being so ungrateful.
Crow agreed that he would bring their message to Manitou and also ask Him if He would consider bringing back the sun and the warmth and the green life all around. It was hard going for crow as he flew up through the gathering storm. His wings became coated with snow and ice and at times he almost gave up hope. But he continued on, knowing that all the animals were depending on him. Eventually, he made it out the top of the clouds and there, up above the Earth, the sun was still shining.
Off in the distance crow could see Manitou sitting beneath his Oak tree. Something about the way He sat Crow could tell He was grumpy. Right away crow flew over to Manitou and landed on the branch just above His head. Manitou said, “Hello crow. What brings you here, my colorful, fine-voiced friend?” Crow sang from his heart and his voice had never sounded more like the music of the Universe than it did that day, during that conversation with Manitou.
Manitou listened. When crow was done, Manitou explained why He had brought the cold and snow to the Earth. It was a lesson to the animals that they should remember all of the many gifts they have gotten and not wish for something that could not be. Crow asked Manitou if He would change the world back to the way it was and Manitou said that He could not. Instead, He explained that once in every trip around the sun there would be a time of cold and darkness and hunger, but that it would always give way to light and life and plenty.
He told crow to bring this message to the animals. Crow said he would and as he lifted his feet from the branch to fly back down through the storm, Manitou was moved by crow’s beauty and his steadfastness and He said, “Crow. Wait. Before you go back to Earth, take this branch you have been perched upon, fly over to the sun and dip the branch in the flames, and then quickly fly back down to the animals gathered in the field. I will make it so that they will know what to do when they see you. Tell them that this is my gift to them to help them through the cold times. It, too, should be a reminder to be thankful for the things you have.”
Crow did as Manitou said and took the branch over to the sun, dipped the end in the flames, and then wheeled through the sky and back down into the storm with the wood burning as he flew. Once he entered the storm clouds it grew darker and colder and crow had a hard time holding onto the branch with his beak. The flames and smoke were choking and blinding him.
At last he come out through the bottom of the clouds and when he did he saw the animals gathered in the field below. They right away worked together to gather pine needles, birch bark, twigs and branches. Others of them cleared a place in the slowly accumulating snow. A pile was made and then crow, just before passing out from exhaustion, dropped the flaming branch onto the pile and it quickly flared up, creating a beautiful, warm fire for all the animals to circle around.
After some long moments during which the animals were terrified that crow might be dead, he slowly opened his eyes. Right away the animals asked crow, “What did Manitou say? What happened? Where did you get this warmth and light?” Crow tried to answer, but all that came out was a scratchy ‘CCAAAAAWWWWWW” Next the animals asked crow about his feathers and when he looked at himself in the firelight he could see that his rainbow feathers had all turned black—singed by the fire and dirtied by the smoke of the branch.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Parli inglese?

If you have read David Sedaris’s latest collection of stories—When You Are Engulfed In Flames—then you probably remember the story of his trip to the doctor and the chain of misunderstandings that led him to be sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, mostly naked, while fully-clothed patients stared at him.

The path that led him to this embarrassing position was paved with the French word “d’accord.” Rather than admit his ignorance of French after having lived in France for years, he would always just answer “d’accord” whenever anyone said something he could not understand. “D’accord” is equivalent to “Okay, sure, I agree with whatever it is you just said.” This quick and ready agreement with just about anything anyone said sometimes led Sedaris into some uncomfortable positions.

I am not mostly naked in front of a lot of strangers, but through a similar instinct away from clarity and toward agreeability there is now a nice woman in my neighborhood who thinks I am from Italy. I was out in the garden last summer and she came strolling down the road, arms pumping her little hand weights as she walked. I looked up just as she was looking at me and we made eye contact. She saw whatever it is people see when they decide to talk to a stranger rather than ignore them and she came over and said something I couldn’t quite get.

When I asked her to repeat the question it turned out to be something about the basil I was growing. I wasn’t exactly sure what she had said, but I told her that I use the basil to make pesto. She said something else and I told her my recipe and that I mostly use my pesto on cheese tortellini. Then she asked me yet another question that I could not quite understand.

Not wanting to ask her AGAIN to repeat what she had said, I simply said “yes.” It was dumb, (I now know), but in the moment it somehow struck me as the right thing to do. Some inner voice quickly sized up the situation and said to me—“yeah—go ahead—agree with her. Whatever she just said can’t have been very meaningful, right? Probably something like ‘Nice weather we’re having.’”

That inner voice was wrong. I know now she was asking if I was from Italy. Turns out, she is from Italy. And now every time I see her coming I have to hide, fast, because I know she is going to want to talk about the Old Country. Yesterday she saw that Erica and I had put in a new raised garden bed and today I found some seedling tomato plants out in the garden. I just KNOW who they are from.

How do I now go back and tell her I am not really from Italy? Can I even do that? Or am I doomed to a lifetime of skulking around in my own front yard, watching, watching, always watching for the woman with the hand weights and the thick Italian accent?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Assassination of Barack Obama

President Barack Obama delivered his long-awaited speech to the Muslim world at Cairo University in Egypt today. As has become his pattern, Obama did not shy away from the stickier points of the relationship between Muslims and the United States. Law students who had Barack Obama as a lecturer at the University of Chicago have commented on his ability to lay out the facts of a situation or a case in a thorough, impartial way that gives a full airing of the grievances felt by all sides in a dispute. The same was true of his speech in Cairo today.

He talked about America’s “unbreakable bond” with Israel, but also spoke of the “daily humiliations” suffered by Palestinians living under occupation. He said that to deny the holocaust is “baseless, ignorant, and hateful,” but he also spoke of “Palestine” instead of the usual American Presidential equivocation of “a future Palestinian state.”

When Obama gave his “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia last spring, I knew right away that he was something special—a politician willing to treat people like they are capable of hearing hard truths about complex, nuanced issues. He knows that we can hear the truths because we all live the truths every day. He knows that to deny the truths, while easy, will never lead to real progress.

Blacks and whites in America KNOW race relations are often not good. Catholics at Notre Dame KNOW that good-hearted people of faith can disagree about abortion. Arabs, Israelis, and Americans KNOW the truth about the conflict in the Middle East
is somewhere in the middle of their many deeply held myths, legends, histories, and explanations.

President Obama seems to truly want the nation and the world to make progress on some of the problems we have been stuck with for generations. He also seems to understand that no progress can be made without recognition of the truth, no matter how complex and unflattering it can sometimes be.

So, he went to Philadelphia and spoke the truth about race relations in America. He went to Notre Dame and he spoke the truth about abortion. And now he has gone to Cairo and spoken the truth about the relationship between Muslims and the United States.

When his speech was over, my first thought was, “He is not long for this world.” If a seeming-crazy person speaks a hard truth that challenges the status quo, that is easy to ignore. But when the President of the United States starts to upset the apple cart, many people firmly entrenched on all sides of these issues can feel threatened. If a politician pisses off one group of the fringe element, it is easy enough to protect against. But when a President takes on as many sacred cows as Barack Obama seems intent on doing, I worry that too many extremists will be coming at him from too many angles and he will be killed. I hope that I am wrong, but as the Greek philosopher Bias of Priene said over 2000 years ago, “Truth breeds hatred.”

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Jack, Part Six--I Love You More

“Well, for one thing it is nocturnal. It is a mammal, but it can fly by stretching out its extra skin like a flying squirrel. It also has a special kind of gland in its rear end that glows like a firefly when it is happy or excited. I wanted to be like Manitou and think about every detail before I created it in the real world. It lives only in oak trees and it feeds on acorns in the fall and winter and on biting and stinging insects in the spring and summer. It gets the chemicals it needs to glow from the acorns and the mosquitoes it eats. The other thing it does is it makes a sort of whistling sound as it glides through the dark. The sound and the light scare the heck out of larger predators like foxes and coyotes.’
“Now that I would pay to see,” said Nana, truly impressed.
“I was thinking that I would try it and then once I had it totally made I would open my eyes slowly and see if it worked. I had it done—I had it pictured in my head, but when I opened my eyes, nothing happened.”
Nana did not believe in magic and she certainly did not believe Jack had the power to create new species, but she couldn’t stop herself from asking, “Are you sure nothing happened? Because if something did happen, it wouldn’t be here in this room. It would be out in the woods. Right?”
“That’s right,” said Jack, hope rising in his voice.
“Why don’t you go to sleep now…I’ll tell you the rest tomorrow.”
“No. Really. I am awake. Tell me more, Nana,” pleaded Jack.
“Alright. Now where were we? Oh, that’s right. Each felt blessed to have everything it needed to survive. Well, these creatures pretty quickly settled into their places in the web. Each did its job and its job was simply to live its life as best it could. None took more than they needed and all remembered every moment that they had been given some very valuable gifts by Manitou.
“Millions of years passed in this way with the earth seeming like one large, living being from Manitou’s point of view under His oak tree up in Sky Country. Life there had a rhythm and a flow that were like infinitely interesting music to Manitou.
“And then one day, one small thing changed. No one is sure exactly how that one day was different from all the billions of others that had come and gone, but somehow it was. On this one day, when everything changed, Manitou found His attention wandered for just a moment. There He was, looking down at the way the Himalayas cast a shadow 1000 miles long across India and Pakistan and into Afghanistan, when something caught His attention elsewhere in the universe. He turned for a moment and in that moment one osprey flying over one small lake not very far from here had a new thought—a thought never thought before by any creature in all of creation.